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Sunday, August 11, 2019
How Army Rangers Train to Become the Fittest Warriors In the World Steal their secrets for elite strength, speed, endurance, and mental toughness BY BEN COURT
It’s 11 a.m. on a bleak morning at Fort Benning, Georgia. Gunfire barks out from over the hill. Heavy, low clouds spit rain on the 21 obstacles that make up the 1-mile assault course the U.S. Army Rangers use to hone agility and speed. The obstacles are named in blunt military vernacular: the Tough One (a 33-foot-high rope-and-ladder climb), the Weaver (a log pyramid that they wriggle up, through, and down), and the Inverted Rope Descent (a 75-foot slide from a 40-foot tower). Ten Rangers are racing for four places in an upcoming all-service fitness and tactical skills contest.
The competition began at dawn with a maximum-pushups test, followed by a run of undisclosed distance. Most guys banged out 80-plus pushups before a run that turned out to be 8 miles. Next the men faced a “long” ruck with a 45-pound pack and a 10-pound dummy weapon. The distance, which again was undisclosed at the start, was 12 miles. The men have no idea what awaits them; this is a core aspect of Ranger fitness. “Being prepared for the unexpected is part of any mission, so we train for the unexpected,” says Nicholas O’Brien, 34, the human performance program coordinator for the 75th Ranger Regiment. The first competitor, M.Sgt. Joshua Horsager, 38, chugs in with a time of 3 hours and 16 minutes. Horsager has completed three-quarters of a marathon at a 9:48-minute-mile average pace—carrying 55 pounds for 12 of those miles. He has 15 minutes to refuel; then it’s a test of explosive strength and speed on the obstacle course.
The next competitor arrives as Horsager sprints toward the first obstacle, a four-story tower he must climb up and down. Most fit guys would struggle to finish the course because it requires such specialized skills as advanced rope ascending and descending, wall climbing, and monkey bar swinging. Horsager blazes through in 14 minutes. Then he collapses on the ground, shattered. He rests for 15 minutes, pounds some chocolate pudding from his rations, and then grabs his backpack and sets off. He faces another ruck of undisclosed distance, followed by another obstacle course. “If you can get your mind to believe, you can push your body to do unbelievable things,” he says. “The body is secondary, unless there’s a significant injury.” The other men trickle in, then run, climb, crawl, slither, swing, and jump through the course. Screams ring out as cramps kick in.
The Rangers are the U.S. Army’s elite muscle. Part of the Special Operations Command, they conduct missions from squad size (nine men) to an entire regiment (about 3,000). Earning the Rangers’ black-and-gold tab requires enduring a three-phase, 62-day course in swamp and mountain terrain that teaches soldiers to overcome fatigue, hunger, and stress, and to lead in combat. About half of the entrants—among the Army’s best—fail in the first week. For the past 15 years the Rangers have been busy, with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other operations globally. They deploy more frequently and for shorter periods. Many Rangers in their 30s are approaching double-digit deployments. Over this same time, the Ranger Athlete Warrior (RAW) program has evolved. Its goal is to bring a smarter approach to physical and mental training so soldiers perform better and sustain fewer injuries. The program is a hybrid of the Ranger military credo—“Further, Faster, Harder”—spiked with cutting-edge civilian insight from A-list trainers such as Mark Twight at Gym Jones and Mark Verstegen at Exos, as well as sports psychologists, physical therapists, and nutritionists. S.Sgt. David Porter, 39, describes the RAW program as “anti-fragile,” using the essayist Nassim Taleb’s concept of improvement from disorder. It teaches soldiers to be resilient in the face of adversity and to grow from stress and volatility. “You learn to know what to do when you don’t know what to do,” says Porter.
Earlier that morning, at 6:30 a.m., about 60 Rangers from Regimental Special Troops Battalion and Regimental Headquarters are working out in their new gym at Fort Benning, serenaded by Calvin Harris, a.k.a. “Transformer fucking music.” They’re a thick-legged, heavily tattooed cadre, men used to carrying heavy loads. All wear black shorts and black T-shirts. No shirt is untucked.
Some guys crank furiously on the cardio machines—Airdyne bikes, Jacobs Ladders, VersaClimbers, and treadmills—that line the left side. In the middle, on a 15- by 45-yard strip of artificial turf, Rangers push sleds, slam battle ropes, and power through heavy farmer’s walks. On the right flank, clusters form around different racks and benches where guys bang out Olympic lifts. At the far end on a series of monkey bars draped with TRX suspension trainers, men do pullups, heel claps, and other hanging moves. Heavy tools and other items that are difficult to grip and move are organized on shelves in the back corners. In one corner is an ice bath (at 52°F); in another, there’s a trio of lounge chairs with $1,600 NormaTec leg sleeves that enhance bloodflow and aid muscle recovery.
Sgt. Maj. Alexander Kupratty, 40, has served 15 tours in Iraq and Afghanistan over 20 years. “Training used to be situps, beach-muscle lifts, and lots of rucking,” he says. “Now it’s much more balanced and functional, but still lots of rucking.” Kupratty says he’s now stronger, faster, and more agile; he also has greater endurance. He has torn muscles in both shoulders yet can still ace the Ranger fitness test, which all Rangers must pass twice a year. He describes a recent mission in Afghanistan during which about 24 Rangers were dropped off and had to ruck to a location they thought was 8 miles away. It turned out to be 12 miles away and included slogging through 3-foot-deep snow up and over an 8,000-foot peak. The mission, the details of which Kupratty declined to divulge, lasted five hours. Then they rucked out by a different route. Everyone kept pace, despite some guys carrying loads in excess of 100 pounds.
The man helping the Rangers execute these kinds of missions is O’Brien, the strength and conditioning coach who has been with the regiment for five years. His pointed beard gives him a diabolical air. It’s fitting, because he makes his men suffer.
Get Ranger Strong
The Rangers need three types of strength, O’Brien says.
This is the ability to stabilize your main joints so movement is smooth and efficient. You forge endurance for this kind of strength by increasing the volume of training for exercises like pullups, pushups, air squats, lunges, and core work.
Heavy external resistance
This is the strength to lift big things, whether it’s pushing, pulling, or multijoint lifts. With the heavy lifts, the men do their 3-rep max and rest to total recovery between sets.
Power and power endurance
This type of strength moves a load rapidly, whether it’s your own body (e.g., jumping) or a weight (hoisting a box onto a platform). It’s Olympic lifts as well as strength circuits. The aim during the circuits is to maintain your pace until completion, so you start fast and finish fast.
Get Ranger Fast
The Rangers also do three kinds of cardio weekly. They emphasize running, supplemented with lower-impact cardio such as swimming, rowing, and training on the Jacobs Ladder and VersaClimber.
Sprint 30 to 90 seconds doing any kind of cardio. Then rest 30 to 90 seconds and repeat 6 to 10 times.
Do a 5- to 10-minute interval of any cardio at the fastest pace you can maintain. Rest 2-5 minutes and repeat 3 to 5 times.
A single activity at the fastest pace you can maintain for an hour...or five, but vary the activity weekly.
Get Ranger Agile
The Rangers begin their workouts with 10 minutes of movement preparation: calisthenics, agility exercises like ladder drills and lateral running, and core work. They also end with 5 to 10 minutes of foam-rolling and other recovery. Doing hand-to-hand combat training and obstacle-course racing also hones agility. Part of O’Brien’s wizardry is combining all of the above in hybrid 60-minute sessions.
Get Ranger Tough
Part of Ranger evaluation is a psychological test that identifies strong-willed people, says Capt. Jeremy Noble, Ph.D., 30, the battalion psychologist. “Then there’s Ranger School, which serves as extreme stress inoculation because of the food and sleep deprivation and the physical challenges.” Those who complete it earn the confidence of knowing they can endure more than they thought possible. That knowledge is empowering, and O’Brien taps into it by creating biweekly challenges that push the Rangers to go further, faster, and harder. Guys can do the test multiple times, and the top three scores are posted in the gym.
Putting the results on display stokes motivation and ensures accountability. The result is community-forged fitness, self-perpetuating performance gains.
The soldiers push themselves and each other. “Max-effort testing reminds them that the mind usually stops before the body,” says David Heintz, the mental performance coach for the Rangers. That’s why Porter calls these tests “work-ins” and not “workouts” because they tunnel deep mentally.
The Rangers maintain this mentality during deployments. For instance, M.Sgt. Roger Underwood, 36, a communications specialist, recalls when on one of his 16 deployments, the team camped in Afghanistan near a hill called Gar, a 1,500-foot climb from base. A previous Ranger had set a time for fastest ascent of Gar and posted it. So Underwood and others set about trying to beat it, and they established various categories: in shorts and T-shirts, in combat gear, and while keeping a mouthful of water (an Apache technique to ensure nasal breathing).
Another time a Marine dared Underwood to do Turkish getups with a 25-pound dumbbell for an hour. He accepted, of course. They stopped counting when he passed 100.
Heintz and Noble work constantly to make the Rangers mentally tougher, emphasizing the big picture as well as in-the-moment strategies. The Rangers are moving away from goal-setting and instead focusing on “being.” He encourages men to check in with themselves daily. “Are you the person you want to be? How are you working toward that? What is stopping you from being that person?” Heintz says this kind of motivation, when paired with having to “kill bad guys,” is more powerful than trying to hit a new weight number on the bench press. It’s about forging a sense of purpose and a warrior mindset.
1st Sgt. Christopher Masters, 36, deployed 16 times, advises each of his men to find their own source of strength. “It can be your family, your country, your collective experiences,” he says. “Additionally, you draw inspiration from the relationships with your team. You don’t want to let anyone down.” Many men wear stainless-steel bracelets with the name, rank, and date a fellow team member was killed in action.
Masters says the younger Rangers, who grew up in an age of information saturation, struggle most when faced with ambiguity, when information is not complete. Generation Me also tends to have a confidence that crumbles when put to the hammer. That’s why the training emphasizes mastering how to handle volatility, and conditions the men to adapt rapidly to change. “No matter how well you prepare, you must deal with uncertainty when you deploy,” Masters says. “The enemy has a vote.”
Rangers do various exercises that build self-awareness, critical to the ability to change gears mentally. For example, in high-stress situations that require calm decisions, Rangers use diaphragmatic breathing—inhaling deeply through the nose for a four count and then exhaling on a four count.
Heintz’s office at the gym doubles as a library. He hands specific books to guys in the spirit of coaches like Phil Jackson. His favorites include Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales, On Killing by Lt. Col. David Grossman (ret.), The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker, Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz, and Mindset by Carol Dweck, Ph.D. Quotes are posted on the walls, with talking points underneath. Here are some (and the takeaway for you).
Fix your face! By deliberately changing your facial expressions, you can control your emotions, shift your focus, and increase or decrease your intensity. If there is a job to do and you’re struggling, fix your face.
Boldly into darkness. Exceptional performance starts with belief. Confidence is that belief. Like any skill, confidence is built, earned, forged. Do something every day that scares you. (For example, if you can power clean 245 pounds, try 255 next time. )
Own it. Why you are not performing at your best is irrelevant. Don’t judge yourself. Excuses are instinctive and distracting. Own who you are and stare into the abyss and say, “Okay, now what?”
Heintz, who has a quote for every situation, shares two more that resonate with the men: “Acknowledge that vulnerability allows you to improve” and “You’re not defined by your experiences but by what you learn from them.” It’s tough being a Ranger in an era of emoticons and likes. “The men I work with would say their work doesn’t inherently produce consistent feelings of happiness that our culture has come to expect at all times,” Heintz says. “The work Rangers do is not happy, though it can be fulfilling. I tell them, ‘It’s okay to feel whatever you’re feeling. It’s okay not to feel awesome all the time.’ ”
One guy who is feeling awesome—and exhausted—is Horsager. He’s held on to his lead, completing the competition in just over six hours. He’s endured a 30-plus-mile movement with 55 pounds of gear and blasted through two obstacle courses. Now he owns bragging rights for the regiment. But he’s matter-of-fact about his win. “I focused on what I needed to do,” he says. “I knew it was going to be nonstop pain until the finish.” Then he quotes legendary runner Steve Prefontaine. “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”
Editor’s note: The 75th Ranger Regiment team of Capt. Michael Rose and Master Sgt. Josh Horsager has won the 2017 Best Ranger Competition held April 7 to 9. Rose and Horsager beat out 52 other two-person teams from all branches of the armed forces to win the three-day endurance and skills competition.
The Ranger Workout
A 60-minute hybrid strength, power, and stamina session.
Three big lifts: power clean (5 sets of 3 at 70% of max), back squat (10 sets of 3 at 70% of max), and dumbbell bench press (30 seconds on/30 seconds off at 50% of 5-rep max for 5 minutes)
A four-exercise circuit: weighted pullups (3×10), barbell overhead press (3×10), hanging leg raise (3×10), farmer’s carry (3×100 yards)
Anaerobic Capacity Drill
VersaClimber: 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off
Foam-rolling and ice tub
The Rangers do a biweekly fitness challenge. Winners are posted in the gym. Get some!